Innovation is scrappy

SafetyCulture product meeting

What does innovation look like in an organisation? Perfectly manicured rows of cubicles with thought bubbles coming out of the top…we all know that is not how it happens. Great innovation is scrappy, it’s not neat and tidy. It’s the ongoing feeling of frustration and the fusion of intuition, opinion and extremely hard work. It can be the kind of pressure that either turns you into dust or diamonds and it forges the creation of something that previously didn’t exist. It isn’t comfortable, but nothing worthwhile ever is.

I ask people sometimes where they come up with their best ideas and rarely, does anyone say, “Oh, while I was sitting at my desk”.

Across generations, the greatest drivers of innovation have been constraints and imperatives.

An imperative is described as something of vital importance; crucial, such as life and death.

A constraint is defined as a limitation or restriction such as “the availability of water is the main constraint on food production”

So essentially I translate those two definitions into; solving problems. When we started building software at SafetyCulture, innovation was easy, we moved fast and it was a scrappy process to iterate from an idea into a prototype and then a release for our customers.

But that type of innovation lacked discipline and predictability. As you keep delivering new features, and more people come to rely on the efficiencies that those features deliver, the need for a stable, predictable environment increases. Our 3,600 customers vary from companies like SpaceX to Aecom and we can no longer afford to ship a feature and have it break at the moment when our customer is preparing for a reusable rocket launch. Our customers rely on our products working, so as a company we develop quality control processes and structure so that everything is thoroughly tested and is guaranteed to work when it is released.

The problem with this process is that is slows down innovation. The time it takes to go from idea to production increases significantly, more people are involved in decisions and the ability to iterate fast and test new ideas slows down.

So, how do we solve the innovation dilemma? How do we move fast and keep innovating but not make mistakes that affect our customers? The biggest gains in life and business often come wrapped in the biggest risks. We need a fast track for innovation.

If you look at any mature IT team around the world, over time they become slower and more risk averse. And there is good reason for that. People’s jobs are at stake. When IT fails in a big organisation, it fails in a big way and heads will roll. So as each year passes the teams grow more afraid to fix what is broken and apply band aid after band aid until it grinds to a halt, and then someone else makes the decision to fix it.

They key to innovating whilst still maintaining a predictable delivery structure, is to take risks in a contained way. Take risks that have room to fail and empower small teams to be autonomous so decisions are made quickly.

I recently chatted with an Airbnb engineer, who explained to me how their small teams across 2,800 employees would come together regularly to align their goals, and then they would go away and execute towards the agreed outcomes. How they got there was largely up to the team, provided it was within the company values. One example he gave was in regards to Airbnb’s entry into the Cuba market, and how they were unable to make electronic payments to Airbnb hosts due to Cuba not allowing electronic payments. The team of engineers elected to employ a team of runners who delivered cash to the door of the hosts. It was a low tech solution and they didn’t need to get approval, they just came up with a way of solving the problem and they implemented it.

Having cash runners in Cuba could have all sorts of negative PR outcomes associated with it, but it was a risk that demonstrates how teams can keep moving forward if they are permitted to innovate. Uber does this well, empowering regional teams to work move fast and iterate their way forward.

There is a scene in the Steve Jobs movie where Ashton Kutcher talks about the imperative of taking risks, “You need to risk everything”, he says. It is the moment when he is trying to break the shackles of familiarity and push past the fear of failure. At SafetyCulture we have teams of people who love certainty and the predictability of working in an environment that is familiar to them. But we also have people who love taking risks, and envisioning something that hasn’t been done before and then go after it. It is the yin and yang of software development and we need both approaches. My job is to keep breaking the shackles of familiarity.

The fast track teams that are pushing the envelop in terms of what is possible are scrappy, and they lack the process and structure that the dedicated teams require, but they can move fast. We talk about the imperative to innovate, but unless small teams are empowered to make decisions autonomously and take risks, then we are just going to build yesterday’s software.

Innovation requires certain conditions to thrive and we are learning how to find the balance at SafetyCulture everyday. It is an ongoing process and as we continue to grow, we have to maintain that balance.